‘The food industry collects a lot of data, but doesn’t make the most of it’

By William Dodds

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Technology & Automation

Food and drink manufacturers have access to more data than ever before – but utilising it in a way that helps drives productivity and business growth remains a challenge.

In a brand new editorial webinar that is available to watch now​, Food Manufacture welcomed a panel of four expert speakers to explore one of the biggest trending topics in the F&B sector right now.

In a wide-ranging discussion, Mark Holmes, senior advisor for supply chain at InterSystems; Iain Walker; director of industry engagement at GS1 UK; Tom Hollands, innovation and technical director at Raynor Foods; and Yitzchak Grant, client solutions director at FutureBridge, shared their analysis, offered advice to manufacturers and forecasted how data could change the sector moving forward.

Stop wasting efforts

To kick off the discussion, the panel considered where and why ‘data’ is produced and complied in modern food and drink manufacturing processes.

“Data as a term is really quite broad,”​ Holmes said. “But we should look at it across the ecosystem of supply chain – the whole value stream, whether it is coming from suppliers, logistics providers, internal systems or customer demand points. It really encompasses all internal and external processes within F&B.”

Walker echoed Holmes’ point, before making the important differentiation between ‘common’ and ‘unique’ data. A common data set will have relevance across the supply chain rather than just to a single organisation, but it requires collaboration.

Offering the perspective of a food manufacturing company, Hollands explained that data is amassed in order to record something whether that be a “specification, metric or customer”.

“The food industry is really good at collecting data, but we are not so good at making the most of it,” ​he added.

Grant continued this point stating that, given so many processes have become digitised, data can be collected at every step along the supply chain.

“In a world where I can know anything, what is it that I really need to know in order to deliver on a business need,”​ he mused.

‘The proliferation of data is an opportunity and a challenge’

An example of how Raynor Foods is looking to put data to work is by measuring all the CO2 ​emissions utilisation across the entire business and then using technology to create better insights with the results.

“We have experimented with different bits of technology such as AI to look for patterns and create more value from our data,”​ explained Hollands.

Holmes added that he has heard from F&B industry figures that much of the data they are collecting is not “harmonised and normalised”​ or “real-time”,​ which makes creating intelligent insights difficult. Listen to Holmes’ response in full above.

Responding to Holmes’ point, Walker explained that the “proliferation of data is both an opportunity and a challenge”.

“The ability to sell products to consumers, reduce waste and lower costs are the driving force here,”​ he continued.

“So amid this proliferation of data we need to pick out the bits that really matter and minimise duplication.”

“We also need to step back a minute and look at the new business models and new ways of working that access to data can unlock,”​ Grant added, noting that the impact of data on more traditional operational models is more limited.

‘You need quality data to drive AI tools’

The panel also tackled the central question of driving productivity and cutting costs through the use of data. Holmes started by explaining that too many firms still use excel spreadsheets instead of technology that can automate processes and allow for real-time, ROI-based decision making.

He explained: “Technology can be applied to CO2 ​decisions too around optimising transportation while also delivering on-shelf availability. And then with AI you need quality data to drive these tools.”

Hollands was in agreement: “Digital technology reduces the cost of gathering data and finds ways that it can be leveraged.”

He used the example of measuring a machine’s energy usage, where the data collection and distillation can now be automated. The team can then act on the advice of the tools to reduce energy consumption, which cuts costs, makes the plant more efficient and reduces the lag time throughout.

Looking ahead, Grant predicted that the factory of the near-future could look rather different, with AI-assisted automated processing and smart production lines allowing factory managers to oversee operations from home using a computer.

“The future is coming and it is very exciting, but it is about how to automate the processing of the data and the changes that are needed to deliver on the savings,”​ he said.

‘We need to find common ways of doing things’

Despite the possibilities for progress, Holmes emphasised that data still remains an issue for many firms in food and drink.

“I spoke to a company that was having issues with on-shelf availability because their system thinks there is not enough of a certain product, but this is the result of a spelling mistake on a separate enterprise system,”​ he recalled.

“We have learned that we need to use technology differently so that data is optimised quickly and accurately.”

Grant then highlighted that historical data is not offering decision makers with useful insights because of the current rate of change within the industry, exemplifying the importance of the real-time insights cited by other panel members.

While Walker and Hollands discussed the need for collaboration both internally and across the sector so that data access and utilisation can be improved.

“We need to get buy-in from the workforce because there are concerns about unemployment especially around automation,”​ Hollands explained.

Walker added: “Amid so much data we need to find common ways of doing things. To ensure transparency and traceability, we need interoperability that means that the data is working for us, rather than us working for the data.”

To hear more from our expert panel, sign up to watch this editorial webinar for free now​.

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